Tuesday, 1 December 2009

How to 'Bangalore' Your Love-Life if You Live in Bangalore

Being a diligent denizen of the corporate world, every once in a while I surf the net for ways to make myself more productive and achieve a better 'work-life' balance (first thing I've learnt: surfing the net for that sort of stuff sucks time away from both work and life), I happened to read about Tim Ferriss and his book (and blog) 'The Four-Hour Work Week'. There are some pretty fun hacks and stuff that he goes over while talking about 'Lifestyle Design', but what caught my attention was the section on 'Outsourcing Life'. An abridged form of version of the chapter, with a case-study, is available on-line here. It's not just about out-sourcing your work or your appointments calendar, but also stuff like having bed-time stories read to your kids or even having someone else take up the effort of finding women online and setting up dates:

Now while this sounds very cool, you've got to feel for the poor guy sitting in Bangalore who has to go through all those profiles and send out mails and stuff. After all, it's not like he'll be in a position to hand over his Orkut and Facebook profiles to someone in the Philippines or China, and he's too busy with writing code, setting up dates or running errands online to go hit on women himself. So if you're a good Bangalorean ITES employee, what do you do?
Mom-source the work, of course. Delegate all the work of finding the right girl to your mom (and if required, other family members) and let her handle the profiles on the matrimonial websites, the background checks, the meetings etc. You get a fully committed personal assistant and PR rep, so to speak, and all at the fantastic price of zero rupees. It also means that you don't have to spend time actually learning any social skills or etiquette.
Having delegated all that difficult work, you can then devote the extra time you've gained to all those exciting things you've always wanted to do in life, like drinking too much beer, nailing down the code for that pesky macro at work, or even proving conclusively to all those heathens on the the Cricinfo comment pages that Sachin Tendulkar really and truly is God. So what are you waiting for? Life, as John Lennon would have told you, is what happens to you while your mother is busy making other plans.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Lost in Translation, perhaps?

Remember back when people kicked up a fuss about how the 'slumdog' in 'Slumdog Millionaire' was a derogatory term and there were slum-dwellers who objected to being called 'dogs'? I remember thinking (and I'm sure I wasn't the only one) that they were making too much of a hue and cry over a stupid movie. After all, you'd think that people who don't like slum-dwellers would probably come up with worse epithets, and people who cared about them wouldn't be so insensitive, now would they? Well, think again:

I saw this ad up on the Indian Express' site and took a screen-shot. That's actually an ad for the SOS Children's Villages, a respectable (AFAIK) NGO that does pretty good work for kids the world over. So why in the world would they call these kids 'real slumdogs'? Even if they wanted to tie their work in to the movie to try and get more donations, there's got to be a better way of putting it, right? Right?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A Few Clarifications

It has recently come to my attention that my mom is now blogging (Yay Mom!), and therefore it is possibly only a matter of time before she finds out about my own blog (if she hasn't come across it already). As a result, I think it is time to make a few clarifications about this blog, specifically with regard to the title, since I don't want to have to answer questions along the lines of 'but monae why do you think you might be ugly..?'. As you might have gathered from that dashing profile pic on the side-bar, the title does not, of course, describe me, and was not ever meant to.
A further clarification: since I started using Google Analytics in April 2008, I've had at least one hit a month on average from someone searching for whether the word 'cute' means 'ugly, but bearable', and I can safely say that it does not (see here for details, or perhaps even here). Having cleared that up, I will admit that I had first heard of the above bit of folk etymology back in college, and that's how I hit upon the title of this blog. The phrase 'ugly, but bearable', for the most part, serves well as a description of my outlook on life in general - shit crap bad stuff happens, but rarely is it ever overwhelming, and you carry on because that way hopefully less, or at least different, shit crap bad stuff will happen in future.
Now at this point I would have linked to my mom's blog as well, however, it seems that ever since I put up a post named 'The Hep Aunties of Khan Market', I seem to attract a few unseemly googlers looking for lascivious details on said aunties, and I'd rather not direct their attention towards my mother, or, for that matter, anyone else's.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


"Word on the 'stream is, there's going to be one of those high teas out int he suburbs this weekend."
"Bunch of stupid kids and pseudo-hippies getting drugged out and listening to crappy live bands. Gets on my nerves really."
"Think we should find out more, call in a bust?"
"Yeah, why not? Bunch of wannabes think it's cool to protest against the license fees and all, but cut their broadband for 10 minutes and they're screaming down the phone lines. And don't even get me started on those music-types. Without the fees, they'd be on the streets flogging CDs that nobody wants and holding down two jobs to survive, instead of relaxing at home and waiting for us to mail them their royalty cheques."
"I never really figured that out. You'd think they'd love the scheme."
" Not all of them. It's like the old radio stations, only instead of DJs, it's the algorithms that decide whose music is worth listening to. And it's a lot tougher to bluff the algorithms - you've either got talent or you don't. The computers aren't as taken in by sex appeal."
"Yeah, but that means that we basically get to decide who gets heard and who doesn't, huh?"
"Well, we aren't the Office of Online Guidance, Learning and Education for nothing."
"Funny, that. Back when my dad tried to join the company, I don't think he would have imagined things would turn out like this for them."
"Your dad was an Ogler, too?"
"No, but he did interview with them. That was way back, before the government took over and they changed the name to the recursive backronym and all that. Wonder who came up with that."
"So you're living your dad's dream, huh? Must be proud of you."
"Somehow, I don't think he had Assistant Manager, License Fee Collections, put down as the dream job for his son."
"It could have been worse, y'know. For instance, you could be a food safety inspector trying to figure out which of those regenerated meat things are halaal. That's some weird shit. Just thinking about it makes me feel icky - like it's some kind of immortal sausage or something."
"Hey it's not bad. I think it's pretty cool. Was planning on trying it out for a bit."
"You're going Ronald? Why? For that matter, why's it called reganism anyway, and not re-gen-ism?"
"Well, it's like veganism, only -"
"That's another thing I don't get. It's not like that started in Vegas or something."
"Probably because it sounded cooler than 'vedge', I guess. Anyway, I think the whole concept is pretty cool. Like, you get all the flavour of meat, without having to actually kill stuff, since it's all synthetic. It kind of fits in with our motto, actually. Don't be evil, and all that. Y'know?"


Note - I was thinking of a story along these lines for a while, but it all fell together a lot better after reading this transcript of an interview between Krugman and Charlie Stross. Go read that as well, if you haven't read it already.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Scariest Story I Ever Read/Spoiler Alert

For a while now, I've been trying to put together a story that starts: "The scariest story I ever read was 'Zuckerman Unbound' by Philip Roth". It's tough to do without making it quite obviously autobiographical (if I ever do put my Plan B into place, I might use it there, I suppose). That's because 'Zuckerman ...' isn't anything like a horror story. It's actually a tragicomedy about a Jewish writer who becomes famous for writing a novel full of sex and snide remarks about other Jews, and ends up being identified with the protagonist of his novel. Not something you'd normally consider scary, to be honest. Then again, I don't read scary stuff normally, so what do I know (come to think of it, I haven't even read any Stephen King).

What freaked me out were actually two big plot points, which seemed to reverberate with my own particular context at that time. [Note: I suppose this is the point where I go 'SPOILER ALERT!']. On the one hand, there was this side character in the story called Alvin Pepler, who is supposed to have been a big winner on the TV quiz shows that were prevalent in the 50's (before being convinced to throw a round by the producers in a similar plot to what was covered in the movie 'Quiz Show'). Roth portrays him as this gasbag living in his past, defined by what happened to him on TV but also trying to escape it (I hope you see where I'm going with this). I read the book in my first year of college, when my identity was still defined to an extent by the fact that I'd been on TV and won the BQC. It scared me then to think of the possibility that my one big life-defining moment might already be behind me at the age of 18.

The other big scary plot point, ['SPOILER ALERT 2!', if you will] was right at the end, when Zuckerman's father, who is dying, uses his last breath to abuse him for writing a book that basically brought shame to their respectable family and made fun of the community. This sounds almost maudlin the way I describe it here, and Roth obviously lays it all out better in the book, but it freaked me out even more. Back then I had pretensions to becoming a full-fledged writer at some point, and to have this whole potential future guilt-trip laid onto my sweet, family-comes-first Mallu Catholic soul was unexpected when I'd started reading the book. I knew I didn't have sufficient imagination to come up with an entire other world a la Tolkien, but I could see myself putting out a decent stream of snappy farces satirizing the world around me. The thought of someone, and that too someone close to me, taking it all personally hadn't occurred to me, until then. Honestly.

Of course, much water has passed under many bridges since the time I first read the book. For one, I'm now no longer known for being a good school quizzer and more for being an above average college one, among other things, so the ghost of Pepler doesn't haunt me so much. As I said, I've been meaning to write about the book for a while now, but lacking sufficient inspiration, I whacked it from my parents' home last time I visited and re-read the book on the flight back. I'm glad to say I found it a much more fun read this time, and not as scary. Then again, that could be because I'm growing old and giving in to convention anyway, so there's less likelihood of giving offence. Come to think of it, that's a scary thought too.

UPDATE: Added in links, and due attribution to Han. Also, if you're interested, here's a review of 'Zuckerman Unbound' from the NY Times. And finally, here's a list of 15 books that I like, which I put together because Han tagged me on Facebook.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

'Forever' Means 'I'm Willing to Play this Iterative Prisoner's Dilemma Game Indefinitely'

While killing time on Google Reader, I came across two posts, one on Marginal Revolution and the other on Overcoming Bias, on relationships. They got me thinking about this idea I had a while ago about how it might be fun to apply the game theoretic framework of the Prisoners' Dilemma to how a relationship might form and survive*. I finally got around to typing it up into a post (sub-scripts and super-scripts are killer), so here goes:

(Important Disclaimer: I'm not taking myself seriously in this post, and neither should you).

Consider an individual x with a utility function broadly as follows:

U(x) = Ux if x is single, and

U(x) = U'x + UxR if x is in a relationship


U(x) is x's total utility (Yes, ok that's crappy notation, see disclaimer above)

Ux is the utility that x gets from generally getting on with the day-to-day aspects of his/her life,

U'x is the utility that x gets from generally getting on with the day-to-day aspects of his/her life when in a relationship, and UxR is the added utility that x gets from being in a relationship because the other person commits.

Assumption 1: Consider that committing to a relationship usually involves some sort of change in one's daily routine and possibly even more sacrifice, so we can assume that usually,

Ux > U'x

Although, one would presume that

U'x + UxR > Ux

(call this presumption 1, if you will; without this presumption, of course, further analysis would be meaningless)

Now consider another individual, y, with a similarly formed utility function V(y) with components Vy, V'y and VyR.

Assuming that x and y are of the right gender to suit their respective orientations and are open to getting into a relationship, a one-off encounter between them could be considered within the simple Prisoner's Dilemma framework as follows:






U'x + UxR , V'y + VyR

U'x , Vy + VyR


Ux + UxR , V'y

Ux , Vy

Here, since the bonus utility ( UxR or VyR) comes from having the other person commit to the relationship, if either party defects but the other commits, the defector gets the bonus but not the one who commits. Think of this in terms of the committing partner having to make sacrifices but not getting much of the rewards from being in the relationship. Obviously, then, as long as assumption 1 above holds, both x and y would defect in a one-off encounter, as in the standard single-iteration PD game, resulting in the two getting utilities of Ux and Vy, respectively. That's one way of explaining why it's very rarely that something like 'love at first sight' might happen (perhaps a relaxation in assumption 1 is required?).

The single-iteration PD game can be extended by considering iterative game play. Firstly, let us consider iterative game play with a defined number of iterations, say t. If I remember my introductory game theory classes, this does not arrive at a 'satisfactory' solution. While both players may consider committing since it means that they can get higher gains, since the number of iterations is fixed, it becomes rational to defect in the t-th iteration and aim for the highest possible gain. But if you know that your partner is going to defect at t, you could opt to defect at the (t-1)-th iteration itself, so you can try for the maximum gain in that iteration and avoid being duped in t. Since both parties would think this way, they will end up defecting from the first iteration itself. Not very romantic, but then again there are very few cases where you'll find people getting into a relationship with a clearly defined end-date. (There are examples, of course, but I'll leave you to find them and post them in the comments. I would guess, though, that in most of those cases assumption 1 would not hold).

On then to the next case: the infinitely-repeated PD game. Here, if both the players profess undying love and commit to each other, they get pay-offs of U'x + UxR and V'y + VyR in each iteration. They can also set credible threats for the other player, so that any defection by the other player could be met with some sort of punishment- a consequent defection in the next n iterations, say, or a 'grim' trigger strategy where any defection by one player will be met with the other player also defecting for all further iterations. These punishments ensure that the players are better off committing instead of defecting in any one iteration. And how do both players knows that the game is infinitely repeated? By repeatedly asserting the same, and/or locking in the commitment through a contract aka marriage. In such a framework, then, as long as neither player defects, both will maximize utility for all future iterations – or, as they say in the literature, they go on to live happily ever after.

Homework questions (Answer in the comments, if you please):

  1. What happens if one person thinks that the game is infinitely repeated, and the other knows it's going to be finite? Read the post on MR again. How would this analysis apply there?

  2. How does the analysis change if we relax assumption 1? What inferences would you make of a person for whom Ux <>x ?

*Incidentally, I was considering naming this post 'Prem Qaidi', but I wasn't sure how many people would get the joke...

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Writing Ugly

I wonder if there's a case to be made for grinding out a blog post every now and then, as a way of reminding oneself that it can be done. I haven't written anything for a while now, and seem to be averaging about one post a month of late. Not because I'm too busy or anything, of course, just that most of the stuff I start drafting out in my head doesn't meet my own standards for publication. If it isn't good enough for me to read, I reckon it's not something I want to share with anyone else. And that, I think, is really the cause for most cases of writer's block - the problem is not that one can't think of anything to write about, it is just that one can't seem to find the words to express oneself in a way that is gratifying. Maintaining some standards is, of course, necessary, but I do think that sometimes we end up putting too much thought into whether something is worth writing (and posting) or not. Which, if you think about it, is rather ironic when it comes to blogging, because the 'cost' to post one's writing is pretty low (mainly in terms of time rather than money) as is the 'cost' to others to read it. In fact, when I first started blogging, I tried to get a feel for it by checking out one of those 'how-to' type blogs that recommended that I just keep on posting whatever came to mind - with enough quantity, there was sure to be at least some work of quality. I don't think I followed that advice much, but I did manage to get a fair number of posts out of the way pretty quickly.

But that was when I was still just enjoying the whole opportunity to write again and didn't care who read them. As I have become more conscious of the fact that some people actually read my blog (even if it was about 5 regulars and one or two misguided souls searching for naughty pics of aunties or whatever), I think I have become a bit more hesitant. I'm a lot more conscious of how potential readers might react or even if there will be a reaction at all. I find myself (sometimes) obsessing over whether particular posts got comments or not, or how new visitors arrived at my blog. Case in point: I'm now ruing the fact that I named a post "The Hep Aunties of Khan Market", since I now get a few hits each month from the aforementioned MILF-seekers. Google Analytics is more of a hindrance than a help in this regard - it gives me more things to ponder about, like whether that person sitting in Bristol who visited my blog 3 times in the last month is someone I know who's just checking in (though I can't think of anyone) , or if it's a new reader who might like my style and who I need to impress even more so she'll keep coming back and may tell more people about me so I can slowly establish an empire of readers across the South of England (it had better be a she - I don't want to have to find out I'm wasting my time worrying about strange British men...). And all this for a blog that's just a side-project that isn't even going to make me rich or famous or anything.

Of course, I was a worrier about my writing well before I started blogging. Back at College, I could only start writing my essays for tutorials after midnight, when I was just tired enough to not give a damn about how fruity my writing might sound. As a result, for the first 3 'tutes' I wrote for a subject called Comparative Economic Development I quoted, in order, Jesus Christ, Voltaire and Pink Floyd, because I knew that our prof didn't really care what the body of the essay contained as long as it started and ended well, and I actually got pretty good marks for them. I don't think I could have written any of those while completely in control of my senses, since it would have seemed too pretentious and cheesy for me to put my name to it (Yes, I know, trying to 'keep it real' in a tute is pointless, but so is reading an amateur blog so why are you here and what's your point?).

Which brings me to today. I had to write an article on 'Value Addition in Challenging Times' for a newsletter at work (not quite, I grant you, 'What the Well-Dressed Gentleman is Wearing', but we all have to start somewhere), and after letting it slide for a couple of days, I finally ground out the first draft today. I wouldn't normally have thought of myself as writing a 'gyaan'-type article, so I basically imagined the sort of stuff that my former department head at the Bank would have liked reading, and put it down. And as a reminder of my old tute-writing days, I even finished it with a quote from Rahm Emmanuel (you know which quote I'm talking about). It may well be that tomorrow I will find out I have to re-write most of the article, but just the act of writing without judging myself too much was quite enjoyable. And that led to this post.

Quite freeing, in a sense, like after when you've taken a satisfying dump. And now that it's done, I shall post it, and be done with it. Comment if you wish, I don't care.

Well, not too much, anyway.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Spare a thought for Stanford - and Subhash Chandra

While Chris Gayle took the game away quite conclusively from the Australians at the Oval yesterday, credit is also due to the lesser lights, Andre Fletcher and Jerome Taylor, who set the pace at the beginning of each innings with the bat and ball respectively. Watching them confidently put the Australians in their place made me think of the Stanford 20/20 for 20, when the Stanford Superstars, basically the WI team by another name, dismissed the English to win $20 million. That win was in turn set up by the Stanford 20/20 domestic tournament which helped to identify new talent and hone it through good facilities and coaching. Fletcher, himself, credits Stanford with providing him the platform to showcase his skills, and still thinks highly of him, despite losing some of his winnings due to investments in the latter's firm.
Which brings me to Sir Allen. Despite the supposed Ponzi scheme and the obvious crassness of landing his helicopter at Lord's, it can't be denied that his money did help to bankroll a lot of whatever development there was in West Indian cricket in the last 3-4 years. Given how the WICB has been running things, imagine how much worse things could have been for cricket in the Caribbean (and consequently, cricket in general, given how popular a team they are). So perhaps the ICC should spare a thought for building up the game's base there, before trying to break into the American market.
At this point, let me take off into the realm of wishful thinking/wild conjecture. I wish Subhash Chandra would get involved. Unlike Stanford, Chandra made his initial millions in more prosaic things like exporting rice and manufacturing plastic toothpaste tubes before setting up the Zee TV network which, in turn, begat the Indian Cricket League. Now that the ICL has been squeezed to within an inch of its life by the BCCI, it might be a good fit to see the whole apparatus shift out west. A lot of the Indian players have resigned from the league thanks to the BCCI's 'amnesty' and could all therefore be replaced by local talent, supplemented by the international players (admittedly not the youngest or brightest stars, but still useful) and guided by the coaches and support staff who have been persuaded to stay. Given that Zee has a presence in the US cable TV market already, and the Caribbean is about 1-3 hours ahead in terms of time-zones, the games could readily be broadcast in the US too. That would seem to be an easier way to break into the market than trying to set up a league in the US with hardly any local talent and limited local support.
And since the league would (hopefully) no longer be perceived as competition for the IPL, perhaps it could finally get official ICC recognition. That would only be fair.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The IPL Workout Guide

Most of us have probably given over our entire evenings these days to watching cricket on TV. But just because the IPL is on doesn't mean you can allow yourself to sit around and get fat and lethargic (that holds for you too, Jesse Ryder). While it may be impossible to resist watching the game long enough to go to the gym or go for a run, there's always the option of working out in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Here are some workout routines that you can follow without missing a second of the game. Whoever said watching TV isn't good for your health?

The Little Master Fat-Blaster sequence
Sachin's managed to torch away all that puppy fat in time to replace it with a more age-appropriate bulge around the midriff and now, so can you! What's more, you can do that while watching him bat. Just follow this simple routine: Whenever Mumbai Indians go out to bat, starting from the first ball to the strategic time-out (or till Sachin gets out, whichever is earlier), get up and do 10 jumping jacks every time Sachin adjusts his crotch guard. On a good wicket, you should get in a pretty intense workout, enough to get you into fighting shape by the finals.

Sixers to Six-packs
Get down and do 6 crunches every time a batsman hits a six. Your abs will be DLF'ed in no time! Bonus tip: Do an extra 3 crunches if Mark Nicholas reacts to the shot with a 'You beauty!'.
Note: Beginners are advised to try this routine only when the Kolkata Knight Riders are batting, to avoid too much strain.

Avoid a Middle Order Collapse
Watching the Rajasthan Royals this year, you would have realized that no matter how strong you are at the top or the bottom, what you really need to win is a strong core. Try doing the Downward Dog pose every time the Royals lose a wicket between the 6th and the 15th over, and you'll have a core stronger than Mohammed Kaif's defensive technique in no time!

Strategic Time-out Fielding Practice
Feel your blood pressure rising every time you see an anchor trying to make inane conversation? Don't let it get to you - instead, use it to improve your hand-eye coordination. Get yourself a (soft) stress-buster ball and try throwing it at the TV screen every time the anchor comes on. Give yourself points for every direct hit. For an extra challenge, try it when one of those Vodafone ads are on, picking up a particular Zoozoo for target practice. Not only will this improve your mood, it'll improve your fielding in the next weekend cricket game.

Too many Cricks, not enough info?
So you're cheesed off because you're still at work instead of home watching the game, and now that the Fake IPL player's posts have become rarer, you're stuck with Cricinfo Page 2 for your daily dose of 'cricketainment'. Try this simple routine: open up Tishani Doshi's column in your browser and gently stretch your back and neck while reading, until you get to the first mention of any of the actual games or the fourth paragraph, whichever is earlier (usually the latter). That should get the blood flowing again.

Please make it a point to consult your physician before trying any of the above exercises. Also, please don't forget to draw the curtains beforehand - you wouldn't want your neighbours looking in to see you ostensibly panting at Mandira Bedi, now, would you?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

How would you connect Flamingoes to Maths via sport?

I've been sitting in the dark at home for the last half hour because it rained a fair bit here in B'lore and the damned electricity has gone out on my street. Since it is still to early for me to go to bed, I figured I'd finish up this post I drafted a pretty long time ago. In case it comes out incoherent or idiotic, please, blame it on the lack of electricity.
Somewhere in the deep recesses of Nanavati Studios in Juhu, or possibly in some archive of Big Ideas Pvt Ltd, there (probably) exists a tape that shows a geeky young boy, all spectacles and toothy grin, sweaty from wearing his school's full winter uniform including blazer and tie in the heat of Mumbai, trying to lip-synch to Toni Braxton's 'Un-Break My Heart', and actually getting the lyrics wrong, only to have it pointed out to all and sundry by Derek O'Brien. That was the Bournvita Quiz contest, 1997, and the boy was me, uncharacteristically exuberant because I actually knew the answer to an audio question. Thankfully, this was in the days before YouTube, so it's unlikely that too many people saw it then or remember it now. Besides, I won the quiz that year, so that was some solace. This post, however, is not about that story.
It is, instead, about quizzing in general, and what I've learnt about,and from, being a (fairly successful) quizzer since the age of 7. Of course, back when I started (the Maggi Quiz, 1990, I think), school quizzing was far more about knowing absolute facts than about being able to figure stuff out (the old BQC as it used to come on radio, for example, had Ameen Sayani hosting it and asking stuff like, 'What is the common name for calcium carbonate?'). It wasn't the most exciting stuff, but given that I was a shy, geeky kid, it was all good, since it allowed me to create a niche for myself.
Around then was when I learnt what to me is one of the basic tenets of quizzing, told to me by a senior who was pretty good in his time and, who I was told I bore a striking resemblance to (basically we were both dark-skinned and wore glasses, which is really all that everyone looks at). His insight was this: quizzing is all about educated guesswork. You can't know everything so you have to guess, but random guesswork won't help much either. The important thing is to relate whatever information you get with whatever you already know, and see what plausible answer you can make from it. That sounds pretty obvious, but for most school quizzers, it's not that simple - most limit themselves to what they know, passing on anything outside what they've learnt/mugged up. That, I think, is partly why so few school quizzers end up going on to become decent college-level quizzers.
At the same time, for educated guesswork to be successful, one also needs a basic level of knowledge on which to base one's guesses.That's another failing that a lot of school quizzers have (or at least used to): sticking to only certain sources of information and not being open to picking up cues in anything else they may see, hear or read in the process of getting along with their daily lives. One of the questions I remember answering from a school quiz is that the Yezdi 250D Roadking was the only production bike (in production at that time) which had the front and back wheels inter-changeable because they were of the same diameter. I picked that up from an Auto India article on which motorcycle would be perfect for the Indian Army. At another time, I remember kicking myself for not answering that the Beatles were the band that performed in Germany before hitting the big-time in England, although I'd read that in Frederick Forsyth's 'The Odessa File'.
A corollary to the above can be found in Sherlock Holmes' maxim: when you have eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth. Quite often, once youve' arrived at an answer, you hesitate or second guess yourself. The link seems tenuous, or you cant' remember for sure what your source was, and then you botch it up. Consider this question that was asked in a quiz in 2004 (note: its' a Pornob question, so the provenance may be a little suspect):
'When 'Gandhi' was being filmed in Porbandar, the makers wanted to do an aerial shot of the city around the area where Gandhi was born; however, most houses had TV antennae sticking up out of them, which ruined the period effect. The makers therefore turned to someone who convinced the residents to remove their antennae for the shot within a day, in return for which this person gets a special note of thanks in the movie credits. Who was this person of influence? A name is required, not just a description'

(Murthy, remember this?) The best way to tackle a question like this, is to work out who would wield such power in that area, but would also be famous or infamous enough to make this an interesting question.Power-wielders can be of various sorts - politicians, bureaucrats, gangsters, moviestars, what-have-you. The fact that the person got an immediate response from the residents would indicate that they either really respected the person, or feared them. The final clue lies in the fact that most people may not remember the name: politicians and movie stars whose names are easily forgotten do not make interesting quiz questions. That leaves an interesting possibility: a gangster. Which then leaves the question of which gangster was around in Porbander in the 80s who might be remembered in 2004. Well, there was this movie called Godmother that came out around then... Yep, that gives you: Santokben Jadeja! Ok, not everybody will get that, but I hope that helped to clarify the thought process that goes behind getting an answer like that.
Having mentioned Pornob, I come to the last of the points I feel like mentioning today: namely, the quizmaster. The fact is that most quizzers are incredibly cocky, self-absorbed pricks, who like to prove they are in some way smarter than everybody else. The cockiest of the lot become regular quizmasters, since it stokes their ego to stump their fellow quizzers . It is possible, therefore, to expungu that ego. There are mainly two ways for a quiz master to prove that he or she is better than everybody else: by becoming an expert in a narrow field and asking questions related to that field, or by asking questions that are tricky to figure out, but which seem fairly obvious once you know the answer. Therefore, knowing what a quizmasters' supposed area of expertise is can help: for example, there was this guy who mainly listened to Jim Reeves and other similar stuff as far as Western music went; therefore, for any audio question that had involved recognizing a voice singing vaguely cowboy songs I'd always answer Jim Reeves. Not only would I be right most of the time, the quiz master would be kicked to find someone else who (he thought) listened to the same music that he listened to! As for the second point, of making things work-out-able, it means that the simplest answer is usually the right one. This is especially true in TV shows and such-like, since the larger audience would get bored if the answers get too complicated.
This is why any question that Derek O'Brien asks which involves a number as the answer will almost surely be a trick one with an answer like zero or one.
Now, on to the question in the title of this post. I'm guessing a fair number of you would have figured it out, but for those who haven't, heres' more context: this was asked to me in a Sports quiz by a guy who was studying English (Hons) at that time. Go ahead, put your guesses in the comments (extra points for guessing the quiz master). As Holmes might say - you know my methods...

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Hep Aunties of Khan Market

It is a well-documented fact that Khan Market is amongst the most expensive places to rent real estate for retail in the world. Going by what I've seen over the intermittent visits to the place over the last couple of years, I can add two other metrics in which Khan Market probably tops the rest of the country - the maximum number of hep aunties per square foot of retail space and the maximum number of stores selling overpriced bric-a-brac within a single complex (in fact, the density of hep aunties peaks in the bric-a-brac stores, so one might even be able to construct some sort of combined metric based on that). South Mumbai might come close in terms of absolute numbers, but Khan tops in density. It's almost impossible to walk around the place without seeing at least one woman somewhere between the ages of 30 and 45 in oversize shades, heels and tight jeans on her way into or out of a shop with scented candles in the display window.
Of course, this was not always the case. Many years ago, back in the mid-90's when liberalization was still in its first flush, we used to live in a government officers' colony a few kilometers down the road from Khan Market (more on that in a later post, hopefully). Back then it was a quiet, little market, with a sprinkling of bookshops- Bahri Sons, Faqir Chand etc - some random sari shops, a bunch of grocery stores and a couple of bakeries and small restaurants. A treat would involve eating Chinese food at China Fare or picking up pastries from Pat-a-Cake. Most of the crowd there would be other civil servants and their families, occasionally punctuated by the odd expat or two coming around to pick up meat and breakfast cereals and stuff and, for the lower rung expats, a cheap haircut at the saloon in the inside corner. By the early 2000's, when I was in college, the boom had just started in Khan market, with international franchises setting up shop and the civil service crowd replaced by what seemed like people who had turned up because they couldn't find parking at the M-Block market in GK. 
And now it's come to this - hep aunties all over, more faux continental cafe/bistros than you can spend a moderate monthly salary in, and kids who look like they went to sleep with wet gel in their hair so the just-out-of-bed look has additional hold. I suppose it could be worse, though. They could have torn down the whole place and turned it into a mall.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Saving Daylight

He had first noticed her one morning in January, on the roof of the building across the road from his, sitting next to the water tank with her legs dangling over the side. That was what had caught his attention as he wandered sleepily out onto his balcony. The thought of her falling, or jumping, off the roof passed through his semi-conscious mind, followed immediately by the thought that he would then be compelled to go over and do something. That sort of thing would have put a serious crimp in his schedule.
Of course, he had been aware that the building opposite operated as something of a working women's hostel, alerted to that fact by the steady stream of call center taxis that stopped in front of the gate through the night, invading his own tired sleep, as they ferried its inmates to and from work.But he'd never paid much attention to the women until that fore-noon, when he'd stepped out onto his balcony to catch some sunlight and fresh air as part of his new year's resolution of living a healthier lifestyle. Through January, while reading the papers out in the sun and sipping on green tea in the hope that it would up his metabolism and help him burn flab, he'd been sneaking glimpses across the road to see if she was there. He saw her at least 3 times a week on the terrace, sometimes talking on the phone, sometimes reading the papers, sometimes putting her laundry out to dry.
By mid-February, he'd come to expect to see her in the mornings, and was disappointed on the days when she did not appear. By the end of the month, he knew when she went to the supermarket around the corner to buy groceries (alternate Fridays), that she usually wasn't home on weekends (he'd gotten quite tanned reading the Sunday supplements out on the balcony waiting for her to show), that she probably worked a late night shift and woke up late (she never came out on the terrace before 11.30) and that he had a crush on her.
With that final deduction, though, came the question of what he could, or would, do about it. After a lot of deliberation and searching on the internet for motivational articles and tips on impressing women, he decided that he would go ahead and talk to her. It wasn't according to type for him, but then playing to type hadn't really been too successful for him until now, resulting in 2 one-sided infatuations where he had been too shy to tell the objects of his affection about his feelings and one proto-relationship where the girl too had been afflicted by the problem, and they'd remained 'just' friends for 2 years before she moved to a different city and got married a year later to some guy her parents found. 
And so it was that on the first Friday of March he bathed and dressed early and made out a grocery list and set out for the supermarket. He loitered about the aisles in the cosmetics and men's personal health section, trying to avoid the eye of the salesgirl trying to flog a new range of bath products as he scanned the rest of the store. And then, just as he was beginning to lose his resolve and let the sales-girl start talking about the exfoliating properties of micro-granules, he saw the girl. She was standing in the breakfast cereals section, seemingly weighing the merits of corn flakes versus muesli. He thought up a somewhat lame joke as his opening line and tried to psyche himself up into being cocky and funny, like they said in the lad mags. But before he could push his shopping cart across, though, he saw that she was not alone this week. There was another girl, one of the other tenants - he had noticed her sneak up to the terrace every once in a while for a smoke. It was enough to kill his resolve.
And that was the end of that. That Monday, his clients in the US would set their clocks back an hour, which meant that he would also have to get in to office earlier. He would not have the luxury of lingering over tea in the mornings for another eight months, which meant that he'd probably not be seeing her regularly again. It wouldn't have worked out anyway, he told himself. At least the body wash he'd bought that day had made his skin smoother, so it wasn't all a total wash-out.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

A Glorified Cafe Coupon Economy

Back in College, cash-strapped students could get around the fact that they were running down their reserves of money by signing up for 'Cafe coupons', little bits of yellow paper that were worth 5 bucks each and could be redeemed at the Cafe, with the price of each wad of coupons put onto their term bills for their parents to pay off. I wasn't much of a fan of the concept, mainly because I wasn't all that fond of the limited Cafe fare (and really except for the scrambled eggs and the mince, pretty much everything else you could get better and cheaper at the D-school canteen). Far better, then, to get my hands on some real cash (usually through quiz winnings), and spend it as I wished. 
Local currencies, in many ways, remind me of those cafe coupons. To quote from Wikipedia, "a local currency, in its common usage, is a currency not backed by a national government (and not necessarily legal tender), and intended to trade only in a small area." While these currencies may differ from each other on certain characteristics, they all usually have at least one thing in common - there's a fixed exchange rate between a local currency and the national one, manipulated by the issuer of the scrip. Their supporters defend them mainly on the following grounds: that they help to boost local purchasing power and hence aggregate demand in the community, encourage local businesses and, since they restrict the transactions to being within the local community, are, supposedly, environment-friendly.
If you think about it though, these aims are either specious, or can be achieved better through just using the usual currency instead. For starters, consider the cafe coupon economy: while the coupons may have allowed students to spend more at the cafe, it did cause them to substitute away from other places that they could have been frequenting - the D-school canteen or Chhung town, for instance, choices that would be available to them if they had cash instead. Further, since man does not live on bread, or even toast and chai alone, they would be limited in their ability to procure other supplies since stores outside of college would not accept the coupons. Thus while the coupons push up demand for the cafe, they don't really help any other businesses in the area, while restricting the consumers' choice. Of course, this is touted as an advantage of a local currency - the fact that it restricts purchasing power to only a smaller set of establishments. 
In the case of cafe coupons, since the students aren't directly paying for the coupons, there's a jump in aggregate demand within the campus economy with their increased expenditure, although it's actually due to a transfer of funds from their parents outside the system rather than an increase in the students wealth through productive enterprise. Similarly, in some cases where the community is facing a recession, the local currency, it s is claimed, may stimulate aggregate demand. The Worgl experiment is touted as one such successful case. However, this too may have been partly because it allowed for an additional infusion of funds through the fractional reserve banking system, which boosted aggregate demand. While getting banks to lend is a crucial element to sustaining demand, it is not predicated on having a local currency.
For most situations, though, rather than an infusion of funds, it is usually a case of people converting their actual currency, which they would have spent anyway, to the local scrip at a given exchange rate and then spending it, which basically seems more like a redistribution of demand rather an actual increase in it. Now, the exchange rate can be set in such a way that using the local scrip would provide the customer with a discount. While this is an improvement for the customer, it's a hit that the merchant establishments have to take, hoping to make up in volumes what they lose in price. But then if you really like a local shop, say because your friends work there, then to encourage their business you should be paying in actual currency rather than the scrip so they get full value for their product, right? On the other hand, if they do want to offer a discount, making it clearer in terms of actual currency might make the benefit clearer to the customer, which might stimulate demand further (which would work better - "5% discount on everything", or "Berkshares  accepted"?). 
Setting the exchange rate the other way around, though, can make matters better for the merchant while making them worse for their employees and/or consumers. By paying employees in a scrip with an inflated exchange rate and then getting them to spend it only at the company store, employers can easily make super-normal profits at their employees' expense (Look up the concept of company stores/the truck system on Wikipedia for more). Strangely enough, this has been quoted as an advantage of the local scrip model - it helps a struggling company get back on its feet by fleecing its workers! Yay!
The ecological angle is a new one. Apparently by spending at a local store rather than a large departmental store, you cut emissions, since the latter would spend a lot on transporting goods. But that's not necessarily true, since your local store would also most probably have sourced its product or raw materials from elsewhere, and it may well be that their transportation logistics are less efficient than the large retailer. Besides, in cases where the local store is more environmentally efficient, paying them full-price in cash would encourage them more, wouldn't it? 
Now such coupons aren't always a waste of time. Sodexho coupons, for example, are a better way for employers to subsidize employees' lunches than subsidized cafeterias alone, since the latter option in effect discriminates against anyone who carries their lunch to office. Of course, offering cash would be even more preferable. Similarly, vouchers may be a good idea if you want to restrict customers' choice - school vouchers may be better than giving cash, for example, if you think that people may end up blowing up the cash on things other than their kids' education.As Tim Harford pointed out in an article a while ago, local currencies work better as community-building measures rather than as economically-sound propositions. Otherwise, straight cash trumps cafe coupons pretty much every time.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Yet Another Tumblelog

A while ago I posted about the blog I created on Tumblr, No.20 Madras Mail, which was about Mallu movies. That's a project that I'll probably wind down in another month or two, once I finish up with my list. In the meantime, here's another experiment - Box-Populi.Tumblr.com. It's basically a link-blog with comments, which I set up by connecting up part of my Google Reader shared items feed with a tumblelog via Yahoo! Pipes, with comments added in through Disqus. I set it up partly to figure out how Yahoo! Pipes works, and partly to see what other people think of the things I find notable online everyday. 
So anyway, I'm going to try this for about a month or so to see if anybody actually bothers to comment, and then decide if I should bother with it or not. Drop by and comment if you're interested.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Is this a sign of the times?

Ed McMahon and MC Hammer shilling for a glorified online pawnshop in a Super-Bowl commercial? Is this how bad things have become in general? Or is this just a sign of how low they have fallen? Someone please explain.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

A Secondary Blog, and a little tweeting

Growing up as a Mallu kid outside of Kerala, part of my affinity to my home state is built on the fact that I watched a lot of Malayalam movies as a kid. While in Delhi we used to rent video-tapes from a guy who would come around every weekend on a scooter, and every time we went to Kerala in the summer, we would go watch at least a couple of movies in the theatre (usually the Pattom Kalpana theatre in Trivandrum). While most movies were fun to watch, Mohanlal’s movies were a special treat. He’d end up playing these fallible, slightly-flawed, very human (as opposed to superhuman) characters stuck in difficult situations where their innate goodness/impish charm/comic timing would (mostly) win through, allowing them to get the girl, sing a couple of songs, cultivate a comic sidekick and, quite often, strike a blow for the proletariat.
A few days ago I found a whole host of clips from Mallu movies on YouTube, which brought back memories. I first thought of doing just one or two posts right here on this blog, but then I figured it could be a whole side project, at least for a while. Hence an all-new tumblelog (a nod to Han for restarting my interest in Tumblr - I'd created an id but ran out of ideas on what to do on it). 
I plan to link to a fun scene in the movies I’ve seen and provide a plot outline for them. This isn’t a work of scholarly research, just me posting about movies I enjoyed growing up. So do drop by and leave a comment. Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the URL, that’s the name of one of my favourite Mohanlal movies. 

Also, I think I'm going to get active on Twitter again. I'm a little too low on motivation and inspiration to type out longer posts. The little box on the top right on this page has my Twitter stream. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Apropos Nothing

Trying to teach myself to play the guitar is working out pretty
decently. At some point I might even get around to playing something
tuneful. In the meantime I quite like the focus and discipline
involved in practising. My attention span is usually pretty short, so
it's an interesting challenge to get myself to concentrate fully on
one activity for an hour, undisturbed, especially when it's not
something I have to do, just something I want to do. It's a good
exercise in getting over the usual inertia of daily life which has
been quite overpowering of late. I do have a couple of text documents
floating around my comp with incomplete blog posts typed up in them,
so maybe I'll get around to finishing them and putting them up here
sometime. In the meantime this is just to inform you that this blog
has not been abandoned.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Starting the New Year Right

Starting today, I'm going to try and teach myself the basics of playing the guitar by the end of March. Nothing fancy, just get to learn a few chords, be able to transition between them on simple songs without getting all my fingers tangled up, and generally not look like too much of a dork while playing*. This is only partly due to the fact that the New Year has begun - it's also because I got my bonus (yes, even in times such as these!) last month and I had a little disposable income to, well, dispose of. Besides, I figured I could do with a new challenge to liven things up at home.
This isn't the first time I'm trying to learn, though. I tried it when I was about 12, but unfortunately my guitar classes were at the same time that all my friends would start playing cricket in the park just outside my house. That always sounded a lot more fun than trying to hold a guitar about the same size as me and trying to read music. I think I quit in about 3 months, then.
I'm hoping that by putting this up on my blog, I'll now have an added incentive to make sure I practise, sort of like a Commitment Contract. The only thing I'm apprehensive about is that I'm going to end up bugging my neighbours, at least until my strumming starts sounding a little more tuneful.
Anybody else out there got any interesting resolutions?

*How you look is very important in matters such as these. I gave up on smoking within a month of trying it because I realized I didn't look anywhere as cool as Bogart.